"Speaking Terms"
William James on Intelligence

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
An Essay Written for the Preceptorial on James's Psychology: The Briefer Course
St. John's College, Santa Fe, NM
Summer 1986


 "So put forward the arguments and demonstrations, Simplicio - either yours or Aristotle's - but not just texts and bare authorities, because our discourses must relate to the sensible world and not to one on paper."
Galileo, The Dialogue


After all one had known its name anything's name for so long, and so the name was not new but the thing being alive was always new.
G. Stein


 

The rationalists, intellectualists, absolutists and logicians had given him several choices, but William James was not content. He spoke his mind. And this is some of what he spoke - the heart of it, I believe.

That secret of a continuous life which the universe knows by heart and acts on every instant cannot be a contradiction incarnate. If logic says it is one, so much the worse for logic. Logic being the lesser thing, the static incomplete abstraction, must succumb to reality, not reality to logic. Our intelligence cannot wall itself up alive, like a pupa in its chrysalis. It must at any cost keep on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it. (PU, 207)

Coming upon this passage in "The Compounding of Consciousness", I was attracted by the intense rhetoric, the natural imagery and the aggressive thought. The statement seemed to rise above its context to speak clearly of larger matters. It seemed a poetic synthesis of much that James had pursued in his essays and Psychology.

In this paper I will latch onto his last sentence here in an attempt to make it speak more distinctly, if not more eloquently, of James's overall project in the essays and Psychology. Four questions will probe his statement to help me see what I can see and know what I will know of James, his universe and our intelligence.

I. What is the nature of the universe which has engendered our intelligence?

One difficulty in speaking of James's conception of the universe is that we cannot follow the usual path, the path by which we abstract ourselves from the topic and speak only of it as though we did not exist or, at least, were not seriously entangled constituents of that same phenomenon. In fact, we can speak of it only because we belong to it and are operating upon it.

Out of what is itself an indistinguishable, swarming continuum, devoid of distinction or emphasis, our senses make for us, by attending to this motion and avoiding that, a world of contrasts, of sharp accents, of abrupt changes, of picturesque light and shade. (BC, 38)

In itself, this universe is simply everything, all that is real, a continuum of all that is or possibly can be. James calls it largely "chaotic": "No single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it." (RE, 46) And "experience" is the key word here. The universe, in so far as it can ever be known, can be neither more nor less than experience. James founds the central postulate of his pragmatic method on this "principle of pure experience":

Everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must somewhere be real. (RE, 160)

This has implications for our later discussion of how intelligence knows the universe, but we should note here the inextricable interpenetration of universe (pure experience) and that which experiences it (us, for instance).

If James's universe has a center, it is his own body (and for us, each of our own bodies). This could be misinterpreted as hopelessly self-centered, but in fact no other locus stands in such an immediate relation to our experience. The body must be each person's vantage point. For James it is a beginning, but no end; for we do not meet instantly all points of the universe. Most of the universe is discontinuous with ourselves.

There is vastly more discontinuity in the sum total of experiences than we commonly suppose. The objective nucleus of every man's experience, his own body, is, it is true, a continuous percept...But the distant-parts of the physical world are at all times absent from us, and form conceptual objects merely, into the perceptual reality of which our life inserts itself at points discrete and relatively rare. (RE, 65)

We also have a tendency to think of the universe as "what ever is or can happen right now", as though it were stuck in the present. And from our viewpoint this may be true.

The instant field of the present is always experience in its "pure" state, plain, unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as someone's opinion about fact. (RE, 74-75)

But the temporal and spatial dimensions of the universe can only appear paradoxical from this point of view. On the one hand, pure experience does seem always of the present - James calls it "naif immediacy" (RE, 75) - but this instant of experience is always changing. It is a fluctuating universe in which "transitions and arrivals (or terminations) are the only events that happen, though they happen by so many sorts of paths." (RE, 63) As we experience this "swarming continuum" we become aware of what James calls "the fringe". (This phenomenon is most properly related to consciousness; but, as the border on which experience and experiencer merge, it may be considered a nearly constitutive element of the universe itself.) James explains it thus:

Our fields of experience...and our fields of vision.. are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds. (RE, 71)

This "more" is nothing other than those elements of the universe, hitherto unexperienced, which through various motions of self, others and the world have become susceptible to be experienced. It consists of the many undistinguished bits of the universe, "pure experiences", of which we cannot even conceive until they appear on our psychological and physical peripheries.

These countless "manynesses" of the fringe bring to the fore a final major feature of the Jamesian universe: pluralism. The foregoing attempts to define this universe have concentrated largely on behaviors, the way the universe acts. It is tangled up with consciousness, it is chaotic, it is constantly transitional and terminal, it is widely discontinuous. With his "doctrine of pluralism", however, James tries to define something of the structure of the universe, "No matter what the content of the universe may be," James says, "...it is many everywhere and always...nothing real escapes from having an environment." (PU, 319) And so, given this plurality, and given its generally chaotic behavior, how can James persist in calling it a universe? Unity seems to have been banished to the fringes. Yet James does acknowledge a unitive force within the structure:

...for every part, tho it may not be in actual or immediate connexion, is nevertheless in some possible or mediated connexion, with every other part however remote, through the fact that each part hangs together with its very next neighbors in inextricable interfusion. (PU, 325)

And he proposes a human function in this matter; he pictures this disconnected universe "as being self-reparative through us, as getting its disconnections remedied in part by our behavior." (PU, 330) Elsewhere he suggests that

...the unity of the world is on the whole undergoing increase. The universe continually grows in quantity by new experiences that graft themselves upon the older mass; but these very raw-experiences often help the mass to a more consolidated form. (RE, 90)

It is apparent that James's conception of the universe (with this belief that new experiences are quantitative increases of the mass) passes beyond anything we may read in a high school Physical Science text. But if James is to be at all persuasive, there must be many points of substantial contact between the person "in here" and the universe we locate "out there". His is a human universe, "warmed" by the possibilities and actualities of experience. It is the ground from which our intelligence springs and the base for his humanistic psychology.

II. What is the nature of our intelligence which has been engendered by this universe?

In "The Thing and Its Relations" James sets forth the naturalist's response to "why we must thus translate experience from a more concrete or pure into a more intellectualized form":

...the tendency of raw experience to extinguish the experient himself is lessened just in the degree in which the elements in it that have a practical bearing upon life are analyzed out of the continuum and verbally fixed and coupled together, so that we may know what is in the wind for us and get ready to react in time. (RE, 96)

This is a demonstration of intelligence at work in the universe of pure experience. James seems comfortable with the notion that the origin of intelligence was an evolutionary necessity - as an adaptation for the safety and security of the whole organism within a complex environment. (PH, 116) A close look at James's demonstration reveals a three-fold process. First, the experient is just that - experiencing. He is in possession of a neural system which allows him a fairly sharp awareness of his environment. Second, equipt with well-worn cerebral hemispheres, he is able to isolate, conceptualize and know salient parts of his experience. Third, he is able to prepare for and carry out an appropriate response to that knowledge. In short, he can act.

A provisional definition of intelligence, therefore, might be: it is an evolved process or habit by which an organism determines the truth. And that truth, to return to James, is a practical one - "something to act on" (RE, 24) - one that promotes an individual's survival in the face of frequently hostile experience. James appears reticent about intelligence as such. He rarely uses the word - perhaps because he prefers to let its various functions speak for themselves, thus avoiding battles over Intelligence as an entity. He does, however, approach a definition of it in The Principles of Psychology:

The pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon. We all use this test to discriminate between an intelligent and a mechanical performance. (PP, I.8)

The quality of intelligence is known by its ends. Significantly, James does not limit it to "the process of thought or reason" or simply "the ability to know". He certainly recognizes the complex contributions of thought, reason, knowing (and we might add a number of other cerebral functions), but he keeps them subordinate to the primary three-part process of intelligence. To paraphrase from above, this process analyzes out elements of the continuum, verbally fixes and couples them, and prepares us to react. This would seem to be the proper function of our intelligence. This would seem to be intelligence "on speaking terms with the universe".

III. How does our intelligence get off of speaking terms with the universe that engendered it?

James's argument with western philosophy begins with the Greeks who chose the path of Socrates over that of Heraclitus. If we recall the three-fold process of intelligence, the breakdown seems to occur between the second and third levels (getting from reflection to action). From experience Socrates was able to abstract concepts - his universals - but instead of using these as instruments in a larger process, he or his heirs canonized them as ends in themselves. Knowledge of universal forms came to constitute the fullest operation of intelligence.

James finds this "Universal-worship" hard to understand. (BC, 110) But we can see it as a symptom of the broken discourse between our intelligence and the universe. Socrates' attraction to universals rested in the belief that, unlike particulars, they are immutable, eternal and perfectly consistent forms. Universals thus transcend a universe (the parent) which is everywhere only too obviously moving, changing and dying. The child (intelligence) seeks to escape the confusion and mortality of the parent and effectively does so by declaring itself stable and immortal via universals. In short, the leap to universal-worship represents a radical dissatisfaction with the universe as experienced. It is not surprising that of the three "fundamental conscious processes" of Sensation, Cerebration and Action (BC, xxxi) intelligence has come to denigrate the first, elevate the second and ignore the third.

What of the means by which the intellect elevates itself? James is most concerned with the way in which the disjunctions of experience have been canonized while the conjunctions have been ignored. "Descartes for the first time defined thought as the absolutely unextended," (RE, 30) thus establishing an insurmountable barrier between self and world, marking consciousness as an entity and internal-external dualisms as absolute. The apparent exclusive reality of disjunction is furthered by misconstruing the natures of conception, reasoning and language.

In one of his poems, Eliot says "I've gotta use words when I talk to you." Terms are obviously necessary for speech, but they are only limited representatives of our perceptions of the world (experience). These perceptions are themselves the results of physical and mental selection processes. (BC, 179) So what we receive in language are (to an extent) the shadows of shadows or the parts of parts. Conceptual language is a requisite part of the reasoning process, and James lauds its powers. He calls them "substitutions" which

owing to the'universal' character which they frequently possess, and to their capacity for association with one another in great systems, they...sweep us on towards our ultimate termini in a far more labor-saving way than the following of trains of sensible perception ever could. (RE, 64)

The conceptions and their language are only valuable in so far as they lead us quickly to our termini. Something in the nature of conception, however, does not want to be merely transitional:

Thus, amid the flux of opinions and of physical things, the world of conceptions, or things intended to be thought about, stands stiff and immutable, like Plato's Realm of Ideas. (BC, 107)

This standing "stiff and immutable" is necessary for thought, but it may bring us to identify the structure of our language with the structure of the actual experience. James asks, "Must we assert the objective doubleness of the M merely because we have to name it twice over when we name its two relations?" (RE, 104) Yet the rationalists want to insist on the distinct entitative quality of their terms (their substitutions) because these terms are the most effective path by which intelligence may come to know absolute truth. This project demands a language which cuts behind the mere appearances of inconsistent experience. And we find ourselves back with Socrates worshiping the universals which have never (outside of our conception of them) figured in our actual experiences. We worship labels and abandon the very real stuff they represent. James reflects on the reasoning process:

When we conceive of (some concrete datum) S merely as (an essential attribute) M..., we neglect all the other attributes which it may have, and attend exclusively to this one. We mutilate the fulness of S's reality. (BC, 221)

Not to recognize this 'process of mutilation', but to set the single essence here as "truth" and the infinity of attributes there as unimportant accidental impurities, is to radically disrupt the conversation of intelligence with the universe that engendered it. CONTINUE ...

"What is This Place?"
William James and Religious Certainty

Visit William James: A Most Useful Site.

brtom.org